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The Coming of Age of Ethics Education

It’s time to shake things up in our attempt to teach ethics to college students. The old ways do not work well. The days of lecturing ad nauseam about the philosophy of ethics is gone. Let’s face it. Students don’t relate to Kant, Rawls and Bentham, not to mention Plato and Aristotle. They’re Millennials and no one tells Millennials what to do. They’re used to making their own decisions without interference, even from their parents, and feel entitled to do so.

To gain and keep the attention of young adults and Millennials, ethics professors need to examine current events from a different ethical perspective. Here are a few of my favorite topics given the current state of ethics in society along with a brief explanation.

  • Why did sexual harassment in Hollywood go on for so long without any women coming forward to call out Harvey Weinstein and all the other Hollywood-types that abused women?

The “bystander effect” has an important role to play here. In all likelihood, some of the abused women reasoned that others similarly treated would come forward and disclose the wrong-doing by Weinstein so they would stay silent. Of course, concern about their careers played a role as well. We’re talking about changing the culture of an institution that focuses little attention on what makes for right and wrong behavior and a lot on ways to engage young audiences in things they like – i.e. violence and unabashed sexuality.

  • Why doesn’t Congress act more quickly to sanction members who commit ethical lapses such as Bob Menendez and Ray Moore?

Congress is oftentimes guilty of “ethical blindness.” It hopes these kinds of problems will go away on their own. When they arise, it’s the CYA effect. It reminds me of the blue wall of silence we see all-too-often in police departments.

  • Why did the NFL generally support players who took a knee during the national anthem? Does the league have an ethical responsibility with respect to how the players act on the field? What about off-the-field behavior such as charges of sexual abuse against its players?

The NFL is image conscious but seems to pick winners and losers. The sheer number of players taking a knee shocked the American public and viewership has gone down. But, should ratings drive ethical behavior or is there a higher set of moral standards to adhere to?

  • Is it right for colleges to cancel controversial speakers when students protest against them?

Our colleges and universities are supposed to value free speech and promote it throughout the campus experience and in their curricula. Yet, all too many times in the past few years we have witnessed commencement speakers backing out because of negative student reaction (i.e. Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers) and conservative speakers being shouted down (i.e. Charles Murray at Middlebury College). Do colleges have an ethical responsibility to support student groups that invite controversial speakers to campus?

  • What is the role of social media sites in promoting ethical behavior?

Back in 2014 it was revealed that Facebook was experimenting on the emotional state of 700,000 of its users without their consent. The issue studied the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads people to feeling negative or left out. This raises the ethical question of what a social media site should be able to do with respect to content and advertisements without the consent of its users.

During the twenty-plus years that I have taught ethics to college students, I’ve noticed a distinct change in the best way to reach them. I no longer teach to a code of ethics. Instead, I focus on issues related to specific conduct, personal responsibility and integrity. I also use topical issues to reach them such as the ethical and social responsibilities of companies like Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, AIG and JP Morgan Chase. I also discuss the ethics of sustainability in terms of the sacrifices we all should make to protect the environment. These and the other issues mentioned above grab their attention and enable me to discuss just what it means to be an ethical person or ethical company in our increasingly uncivil society.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 21, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website to sign up for his newsletter.


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